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“Plain wrong” turns out to be dead right

April 15, 2015

Now that the grant levels for 2015-16 are available, it’s possible to write this post, as a case study of  how the force of government rebuttal can be in inverse proportion to its substance.  It’s a tale of the risks of shining light in unwanted places, but also the rewards of persistence.

The draft budget for 2014-15

In the autumn of 2013, the Scottish government published its budget plans for the next two years.  This included a below-inflation rise in the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) budget line covering student grants and fees between 2013-14 and 2014-15, and then a small cash fall in 2015-16, meaning a modest real terms fall over the period (figures and links here).

There wasn’t any explanation in the budget of what these figures were expected to mean in practice for student funding, but coming on top of a large cut to grants in 2013, the implications looked worth exploring, so  I wrote a piece for The Scotsman (here) analysing the numbers, intended to contribute to the scrutiny of the draft budget over the subsequent few months.

The piece noted the absence of further detail from government, and that there were in theory three “obvious” ways a government committed to maintaining free tuition might manage a cash-flat SAAS budget: not increasing grant in line with inflation;  reducing spending on the remaining supplementary grants, of which the largest is Disabled Students Allowance; or reducing student numbers.  But I gave various reasons why the last of these would be “challenging” and noted that there was “limited room for manoeuvre” on the second, concluding “freezing student grant levels therefore seems likely to be a strong contender for managing the pressure here”. I also noted that the value of the fee payment made to universities by SAAS might continue to be frozen, reducing the real-terms value of teaching funding per student.

And so it has turned out.  As of a few days ago, we now know that grant rates will have been frozen in cash terms over the whole period from 2013-14 to 2015-16;  and that the SAAS tuition fee payment remains unchanged over the period (see here).  In addition, which I didn’t predict, the funding assigned to universities has been raided to prop up the SAAS budget (see below) and in 2015-16 the SFC’s teaching unit of resource has also been held at same cash value as in 2014-15 (para 7 here),   in line with ministerial guidance to the Scottish Funding Council in November 2014 (see here).

None of this would be all that interesting at this remove,  if it hadn’t been for what happened next.

The Scottish Government response

Asked about my article at the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee meeting on 8 October 2013, the then Cabinet Secretary, Michael Russell MSP, speaking with the advantage of parliamentary privilege, went on the offensive. His response was:

… I found the article very curious, and I will tell you why….
…The options that Lucy Hunter gave for dealing with what she called a “continued squeeze on student funding in higher education”— which actually does not exist — were an end to the practice of increasing grants by at least the rate of inflation, reducing other grants, such as disabled students allowance, or a planned reduction in student numbers. If you forgive me, convener, I want to address all of those, because her position on all of them was plain wrong, unfortunately.
… Any suggestion that the answer to supposed funding pressures would be to squeeze [the DSA budget] would be nonsensical, because it would not make any difference at all.
There is no planned reduction in student numbers … To use the phrase a planned reduction is utterly wrong. To base an entire article on that is simply not on. It has clearly misled some people, and Lucy Hunter should probably apologise to those people whom she has misled. That is not happening. Therefore, the thesis is wrong. I am happy to provide the information, but Lucy Hunter’s article is based on an entirely false premise, and that needs to be said.
(In full at col 2995-6 here: the response did not – despite the promise at the start – deal with plans for grant levels, at no point referred to teaching funding, but did include much more material than summarised here on the government record and plans on student numbers.)

Strikingly, Mr Russell did not take issue so much with what I had said,  as with something I hadn’t – which was that the Scottish government was definitely planning to reduce student numbers. Noticeably (and it turns out for good reason)  he did not challenge my conclusion that a freeze in grant values and teaching funding seemed likely.

Calling something a misleading piece, which is nonsensical and plain wrong, based on an entirely false premise and for which I should apologise, is pretty strong stuff and I wrote to the Committee at the time, with my take on Mr Russell’s criticisms: that letter is available on the Committee’s website, here.   I also sent Mr Russell a more detailed deconstruction of his statements and suggested  he might like to apologise.  His reply is here: Russell Nov 2013. The tone was more restrained, but he repeated that “I do not agree with any of the options that you listed”.

Yet, far from being plain wrong, the original article turns out to have predicted accurately what the  SAAS budget numbers would mean in practice: a cash freeze in grant rates and the tuition fee subsidy per student.  The likely consequences of government funding decisions for SAAS may not have been at all apparent to the Minister and – presuming his statements reflected the advice he was receiving – the entire government machine, but they were pretty obvious to one individual armed with nothing more than an internet connection and a working knowledge of the higher education funding system.

Indeed,  the Funding Council recently clarified that it will be transferring £14m from its budget to SAAS in 2015-16 to cover the fee cost to the agency of extra students (para 21 here). An  increase in student numbers,  something announced by Mr Russell  to the Committee as part of his argument with the article, turns out – completely predictably – to have been impossible to fund from within the planned cash-flat budget for SAAS presented to parliament.

Scrutinising government

My letter to Mr Russell argued that:

If independent commentators in my position become concerned that they will experience criticism which is unfair and potentially damaging, particularly in contexts where they will have no right of reply or redress, then, as I hope you would acknowledge, that is likely to deter them from contributing and inhibit public debate .

Mr Russell’s  response to me had said:

I am sorry that you are unhappy with the evidence I provided to the committee relating to your published article. I do not think, however, that in disagreeing with what you said I am  either deterring you or anybody else from debating student support or any other issue.  Rather, I hope you will agree that the very nature of debate means that it will inevitably involve different viewpoints and participants who offer a view can reasonably expect their view to be scrutinised, considered, and even disagreed with.

Indeed so.  A reasonable, considered response would have been a much more enlightening in October 2013.  I would also welcome engagement by the Scottish Government with the real substance and detail of the evidence and arguments about grant cuts and the distribution of student debt detailed elsewhere on this site.  Sadly, that has yet to materialise: offered the chance to discuss that issue more specifically some months later at committee, the same Minister once again went off-piste (a story for another day).

Individuals vs the state

There is a lot of information out there about government activity of all sorts, easily available for free and much of it under-scrutinised, at a time when the number of specialist  correspondents in the media is declining.  We are likely to rely increasingly on individuals  examining this information and sharing their findings, to bring out important questions about the activities of the state.

Though Mr Russell is no longer in government, his observation that

participants who offer a view can reasonably expect their view to be scrutinised, considered, and even disagreed with

remains valid,  for those wielding state power even more than those examining how that power is used.

Despite the best efforts of government, gradually the pressure on student grants in Scotland is becoming an established fact of public debate, as yesterday’s Herald editorial, one in last week’s Guardian and  various other articles listed here, demonstrate.  Happily, in the end  it turns out that criticisms which can’t be backed up, however floridly expressed,  sometimes have less impact than persistence and a solid evidence base.

Footnote

The strength of the reaction to mention of Disabled Student Allowance at Commitee and in Mr Russell’s letter to me, when I had only referred to this more or less in passing in the original article, stimulated me to look further at that.  It turned out that the Scottish Government was in fact mid-way through a review of the funding for disabled students (which was not mentioned  to the Committee or Mr Russell’s letter).  While not explicitly about reducing spending, the proposals implied at least  the possibility of  a less purely demand-led system in that future: I wrote more about that here. This review since appears to have been shelved.  The closer look at DSA also showed spending on that had already fallen by 20% in real terms over the past two years.

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